Saint Patrick, Bishop and Missionary

The origins of Patrick are not clear, and facts are difficult to separate from legend. He is said to have been born at Banna Venta Berniae, somewhere in Roman Britain in the second half of the 4th century, perhaps around 385 AD. It is also claimed he was born in Kilpatrick (meaning ‘Patrick’s church’) in Scotland.

His parents were Calpurnius and Conchessa, who were Romans and part of the colonial administration. Calpurnius, his father is also said to have been a deacon and his grandfather Potitus a priest (in the days before clerical celibacy).

As a boy of 16 or so, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave to tend sheep. During this time, he learned the language and practices of the people who held him.

He writes in his Confessions that his faith grew during this period and that he prayed daily.

The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith…so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same.

And again:

I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.

Patrick’s captivity lasted for six years (until he was 20). He then escaped after hearing a voice in which he was told that a boat was waiting to bring him home. After a trek of nearly 300 km, he found some sailors who took him back to Britain, where he was eventually reunited with his family.

Patrick tells of a vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish”. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea – and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us”.

He then began his studies for the priesthood and was ordained by St Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, under whom he had studied for several years. Later, Patrick was ordained a bishop and was sent to take the Gospel to Ireland. He arrived in Ireland on 25 March, 433, at Slane in County Meath. One legend says that he met a chieftain of one of the tribes, who tried to kill Patrick. Patrick converted the chieftain after the man was unable to move his sword arm until he changed his hostile attitude towards Patrick.

His Confessions tell us something of Patrick’s missionary work. He says that he baptised “thousands of people” and ordained priests for new Christian communities. Wealthy women were converted, some of whom became nuns despite family opposition. Even some princes were converted, and this was important. By converting the ruling classes, the rest of the people would be likely to follow.

However, his position as a foreigner was not easy. His refusal to accept gifts from kings alienated him from the local culture. Legally, he had no protection, and he mentions that he was once beaten, robbed of his possessions and put in chains, perhaps with a view to execution. This may have been a reaction to the critical letter he wrote to the “soldiers of Coroticus”.

Patrick is said to have preached and converted all of Ireland over a period of 40 years. He worked many miracles and wrote of his love for God in his Confessions. After years of living in poverty, travelling and enduring much suffering, he died on 17 March, 461, at Saul, in northern Ireland, where he had built the first church. However, some scholars would now put his death as late as 493. St Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St Brigid and St Columba, although this has never been proven.

By the 8th century, he had become the patron saint of Ireland. In general, it is difficult to establish firmly the dates of his life and work, except that he seemed to have worked in Ireland in the second half of the 5th century. We have two of his own letters and some biographies dating from two centuries later. The two Letters, written in Latin, are his Confessio (Confessions) and Letters to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In the Confessio, Patrick gives a short account of his life and mission.

The believed date of his death became a feast day in the Universal Church due to the influence of the Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding, who was a member of the commission for the reform of the Breviary in the early part of the 17th century.

Like most early saints, Patrick was never formally canonised by a pope and became a saint by popular acclamation. Due to extensive Irish emigration over the centuries, the name of Patrick has been brought all over the world.

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